Saturday 20 January 2018

Joe Schmidt keeps options open as 2017 Lions loom

Joe Schmidt in Murrayfield after Ireland won the Six Nations earlier this year
Joe Schmidt in Murrayfield after Ireland won the Six Nations earlier this year
Mike Ross - ever present

Ruaidhri O’Connor

Joe Schmidt held all the aces when it came to his contract talks with the IRFU and the end result means he remains in full control of his own destiny.

The new deal he signed yesterday extends his stay in Ireland by one more year and opens up his options in 2017, a year in which there is likely to be plenty of opportunity on this side of the world and in his native New Zealand.

The Lions travel to the home of the current world champions in two years' time and there remains a possibility that Schmidt will be involved with the touring side in some capacity. Bookmakers have installed the Ireland coach as odds-on favourite to lead the men in red, even if the incumbent Warren Gatland remains the likely choice after his success in Australia.

That the tourists travel to both men's homeland adds to the mix, while All Black coach Steve Hansen's own contract comes to an end at the end of the international season.

Joe Schmidt yesterday extended his deal with the IRFU
Joe Schmidt yesterday extended his deal with the IRFU

New Zealand don't usually promote from outside their system, but a strong World Cup showing and a stint with the Lions could continue to turn heads in a place where Schmidt is steadily building his reputation and turning heads from abroad.

While there is nothing to suggest that Schmidt is set on leaving once his new contract comes to an end, he will simply have options when it does.

While the Kiwi has been undoubtedly good for Irish rugby, the country has in turn provided him with the conditions in which he has prospered.

If the Lions come calling, there could be scope to renegotiate beyond 2017 and add a sabbatical, while he could combine forces with Gatland as part of a dream ticket to take on the best team in the world.

For the IRFU and its performance director David Nucifora, Schmidt's contract has been a high priority issue since he delivered a second successive crown last March.

Given his remarkably successful term to date, you can be sure they'd have liked him to commit for the duration of the next World Cup cycle, but he will instead see out a four-year term before seeing what's next.

Indeed, by signing on until 2017, he relieves the obvious pressure that would come from any under performance in England and Wales this autumn.

In contrast, England's Stuart Lancaster has committed his future beyond the 2019 tournament in Japan despite a relatively underwhelming record, adding to the already huge pressure he is under as he prepares to coach the hosts in September.

Schmidt will be happy that the deal was squared away long before the World Cup warm-ups begin in three weeks' time, allowing him to focus on preparations away from the public glare.

Of the squads preparing for the tournament which begins in 57 days, Ireland are keeping the lowest profile with interactions with the media limited to commercial engagements and news from the camp confined to tweets from players visiting Newgrange or posing with comedian Tommy Tiernan.

Last week, Ireland added two players to their training squad in Nathan White and Denis Buckley without most people noticing and, while England and Wales' every move is tracked as they tour the world looking for some sort of competitive advantage at high altitude in Denver, Colorado or in the heat of Doha, Schmidt has preferred the cool climes of Galway and Meath where his team can train in relative peace and quiet

By the time the former Leinster coach faces the media before the Wales game on August 8, the news of his contract will have moved far beyond the agenda. That allows Schmidt concentrate on his day job of preparing the squad and scrutinising their rivals and not get caught up in any distractions and when he is allowed to do so then the results speak for themselves.

He has delivered a major trophy in each of the five seasons since he arrived on these shores in 2010 and has increased the all-round standard since becoming Ireland coach in 2013.

In yesterday's press release confirming the new contract, Nucifora paid tribute to his old Auckland Blues colleague, pointing out the work Schmidt has done with "indigenous coaches" as well as the women's and underage teams.

Working in tandem, the duo exert a huge amount of influence over every layer of the professional game in this country which has led to tension with the provinces and Leinster in particular, but has generally been a positive development.

The coach is driving standards across the game, demanding that players come up to his level and stake a claim while rewarding hard work.

Most importantly, he gets results. Fourteen wins in 18 Test matches and wins over all of the major nations bar the world champions is a remarkable record of success.

Over the two seasons Schmidt has been in charge, his Ireland team have improved drastically and made history with back-to-back Six Nations titles. With that, comes the expectation that they can reach new heights at the World Cup.

If they do, the clamour to hand Schmidt another new deal will begin in earnest, especially with the big jobs coming on stream at the end of his current deal.

By signing the New Zealander up for one more year, the IRFU have merely postponed the big decision. With competition for his signature set to be fierce in 2017, the union will have a fight on their hands to keep hold of their man with the Midas touch.

Schmidt's Ireland tenure in numbers

18 -Matches played

14 - Wins

4 - Defeats

484 - Points scored

249 - Points conceded

78pc - Win percentage

47 - Tries scored

56 - Players used

14 -New caps (Rodney Ah You, Robin Copeland, James Coughlan, Robbie Diack, Dave Foley, Rob Herring, Dave Kearney, Jack McGrath, Kieran Marmion, Martin Moore, Jordi Murphy, Jared Payne, Noel Reid, Dominic Ryan)

1 - Ever-present

2 - Six Nations titles won

Irish Independent

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